Sister Brendan Lacey turns 100 with sweetness, courage

CHARLESTON — Listening to Sister M. Brendan Lacey talk is like listening to a lullaby. Her voice is quiet and still has the musical lilt of Ireland, even though she has lived in the United States for 84 years now.

The sister, who will celebrate her 100th birthday on March 14, remembers her homeland well. She remembers the strong Catholic faith of the people and the way the churches were always filled.

She said it was common for young Irish men and women to choose a religious life in the early 1900s.

“In my day being a sister, or a nun as they called it in my day, wasn’t so unusual,” said Sister Brendan, of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy.

She first received her call from God when she was only 13-years-old, she said, although for a little while she didn’t tell anyone about it. Eventually she started corresponding with an aunt who was serving with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in India. Her aunt told young Brendan to stay open to God and live life the way he wanted her to live it.

The opportunity to do that came when she was still just 16. At that time, two sisters from the Diocese of Charleston came to Ireland on vacation, with instructions from Bishop William T. Russell to invite young women interested in a foreign mission to come to Charleston.

A few months later, Sister Brendan and two other girls boarded a boat for America. They were on their own with no adult supervision, but never worried about their safety.

“We didn’t have enough sense to be afraid,” she said lightly.

They did, however, “hang out” with another sister who was traveling to Texas with a group of girls. Sister Brendan was heading for New York, where she had family waiting, and from there to Charleston and the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy.  

She professed her vows in 1928, at age 20, and was assigned to the service of nursing.

In those days, nuns were assigned their duties, whereas now they have more freedom to choose for themselves, Sister Brendan said. But God knew where she needed to be, and even now she would choose nursing or a similar vocation where she could help others.

“My life as a nurse… gave me an insight into the joys and sorrows of human living which helped me deepen my prayer life then and now,” she said.

She graduated from St. Francis Xavier School of Nursing in 1931 and was a member of the hospital nursing staff until 1960, when she was transferred to York.

Most of her vocation was spent in hospital work, but the sister also served as matron of the orphanage that once sat on Queen Street.

Of that, Sister Brendan said she values the time she spent in York the most because the people there were so poor and less fortunate than most.

Her duties were with obstetrics, and her whole face lights up as she talks about the mothers and babies she helped in those days.     

“Being in the nursery with those little babies was a very rewarding experience,” she said.

Sister Brendan said the families that came to the hospital were so poor, oftentimes the newborn’s go-home outfit would be nothing more than rags. She would quietly dispose of the worn-out clothes and dress the baby in a new gown and receiving blankets.

Before her official retirement, the sister spent more than 12 years in Simpsonville as a member of St. Mary Magdalene parish. There, she worked with the Society of Saint Mary Magdalene, which was begun in France in 1979 by Edith Filliette and approved by the Dominicans of that country, who are the guardians of the beloved saint’s relics.

Sister Brendan retired to the motherhouse on James Island in 2004.

In all those years, she returned to Ireland only six times. On each visit, Sister Brendan said, she felt the pull to stay in her homeland with her family, especially as her mother grew older, but she was committed to the life she had chosen.

“It’s a very worthwhile life,” she said.  

It’s a life of quiet courage, first exemplified when she boarded a boat to a foreign country at 16, and still evident eight decades later.

Two years ago, Sister Brendan fell and broke her pelvis in three places, but she never thought about not walking again.

After surgery and physical therapy, she moves around the motherhouse with the help of a walker. “For a hundred-year-old lady, I walk enough,” she said with a soft laugh.
Mostly, she spends her days in prayer and reflection.

“I want to be a better person and be more ready for the life to come,” she said. “I pray a lot, and I pray the rosary a lot. I pray for the souls in purgatory. I pray for my family that has gone. I pray for the cessation of war. I pray for the Catholic Church, the priests and sisters. I pray especially for the sisters here in this convent that we may miraculously get more vocations that come to us.”

Sister Brendan still has family in New York, and they will be here for her birthday celebration.